School is in session

Houston college's $60 million energy tech center debuts in Pasadena

Today starts classes in San Jacinto College's new center. Photo via sanjac.edu

San Jacinto College is gearing up to open the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology at its main campus in Pasadena — a $60 million project designed to bolster the Houston area's petrochemical workforce.

On August 21, the community college hosted media tours of the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology (CPET). The center will welcome more than 2,800 students August 26 and host a grand opening September 18. The college broke ground on the 151,000-square-foot center in September 2017.

At CPET, future and current petrochemical workers will learn about process operations, troubleshooting, nondestructive testing, instrumentation, and myriad other aspects of the industry. In all, CPET will offer 75 courses. The center's highlights include an 8,000-square-foot glycol distillation unit, 35 labs, and 19 classrooms. San Jacinto College bills the center as the largest petrochemical training site in the Gulf Coast region.

"Four years ago, a team came together from San Jacinto College and the East Harris County Manufacturers Association to put together a long-term plan for workforce development," says Jim Griffin, associate vice chancellor at San Jacinto College and senior vice president of petrochemical, energy, and technology. "The Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology was part of that plan and is now a reality."

Griffin says the curriculum, classrooms, and labs were "designed and influenced" by the petrochemical industry.

Among CPET's more than 20 partners are:

  • Emerson, which donated more than $1.3 million worth of services and equipment.
  • INEOS Olefins & Polymers USA, which contributed $250,000 in cash.
  • Dow Chemical, which donated $250,000 in cash.

All three of those employers — and many others in the region — depend on schools like San Jacinto College to contribute to the pool of highly trained workers in the petrochemical sector.

"We expect to see a higher-than-normal level of retirements over the next five plus years; rebuilding our workforce is critical at this time," Jeff Garry, Dow Chemical's operations director in the Houston area, said when his company's CPET donation was announced. "The need to train and adequately staff our assets will continue to be a pressing concern. As the labor market becomes more competitive for talent, we understand the importance to attract and retain highly skilled and educated workers."

With four campuses in Harris County, San Jacinto College promotes itself as a training hub for the country's largest petrochemical manufacturing complex, featuring 130 plants and employing about 100,000 people. CPET will serve as the centerpiece of that hub. Overall, the community college says it "plays a vital role in helping the region maintain its status as the 'Energy Capital of the World.'"

PetrochemWorks.com — a petrochemical career initiative whose backers include JPMorgan Chase & Co., the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and the East Harris County Manufacturing Association — says the local petrochemical industry will need 19,000 more skilled workers annually over the next three to five years.

"Chronic shortages of skilled labor are increasing costs and schedules and resulting in declining productivity, lower quality, more accidents, and missed objectives," according to Petrochemical Update, a news website.

Although robots are on the rise in many industries, Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who's an energy and technology expert, believes that as petrochemical companies increasingly turn to automation, productivity will go up, ultimately creating more jobs — not fewer.

"In large part," Mills writes, "it's desperation, not an infatuation with tech or cost savings, that drives employers to deploy technologies that amplify the capabilities of the employees they have and can find. It is a common misconception to think that automation is always cheaper than using labor."

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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